The philosophes were a group of eighteenth century thinkers, writers, and scientists who were convinced that reason, not prejudice and superstition, is the best guide for individuals and for society. All of them, including Voltaire, had long been working on the huge Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-1772; 17 volumes of text, 11 volumes of plates; partial translation Selected Essays from the Encyclopedy, 1772; complete translation Encyclopedia, 1965), the completion of which is considered one of the great intellectual achievements of the Enlightenment. However, on September 28, 1752, Frederick the Great of Prussia is said to have suggested to Voltaire that he compile a much shorter book in dictionary form, which would advance the same ideas but would be more accessible. Voltaire promptly got to work, submitting a number of articles to the king during the next several months, but after leaving Frederick’s court, he put the book aside and did not resume work on it until 1762.
In 1764, the book finally appeared. Published anonymously in Geneva under the title Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, it consisted of seventy-three articles. Voltaire was wise not to claim authorship; the book was burned in Geneva, at The Hague, and in Paris, besides being proscribed by the Holy Office in Rome. However, its popularity can be judged by the fact that it was reprinted three times under the same title, with numerous revisions and additions, until in 1769 it appeared as a two-volume edition entitled La Raison par alphabet (reason by alphabet), which contained 120 articles, including the long imaginary dialogue “A, B, C.” The 1769 edition, reprinted as Dictionnaire philosophique, is considered the final and complete version of the work. Peter Gay’s translation (Philosophical Dictionary, 1962) was the first complete, authentic edition available in English.
Form and Content
Other than the fact that it is organized alphabetically, Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary bears little resemblance to a reference work. The form is idiosyncratic, the tone is informal, there are deliberate inaccuracies, and while claiming to be directed against intolerance, it reflects the author’s own prejudices.
One reason the Philosophical Dictionary can still fascinate readers is that Voltaire took such pains to vary the forms of his entries. Sometimes, as in “Abraham” and “Joseph,” he retells a story from the Bible, inserting his own comments. At other times, he relates an anecdote or a fable, like the make-believe myth about the Syrians in search of a toilet in “All Is Good.” “Atheism” is a fairly conventional essay, tracing the history of an idea, though it is considerably livelier than most other essays of the sort. By contrast, the entry called “Civil and Ecclesiastical Laws,” which purports to reproduce some notes found “among the papers of a lawyer,” is simply a series of short commands, each beginning with the word “Let.” A number of the segments are more like plays than essays in an encyclopedia or a dictionary. There are imagined dialogues between the author and the reader, as in “Virtue,” and others between two fictional characters, like the Indian and the Japanese in “Japanese Catechism.” Sometimes several people take part in a discussion, as in “A, B, C,” which is made up of seventeen conversations on as many topics.
Though his store of information is impressive, Voltaire does not pretend to distance himself from his work, as a scholar would. He makes no attempt to avoid personal references. Thus, he begins “Judea” by informing us that he has never been to that particular place and thanking God for it. Often he chats with the reader, as in the entry on “Soul,” in which he asks, “What, then, do you call your soul?” and presses his listener to “admit” that it is nothing more than “a power of feeling, of thinking.” At other times, he uses tone to preclude disagreement, as...
(The entire section is 2,320 words.)